COVID-19 and its impact on mental health

Story: Gautam Viswanathan

As the old saying goes, to each his own. It is, rather fittingly, a very apt phrase for the current state in which we find ourselves, as the COVID-19 pandemic has affected each one of us differently.

The steps taken globally to arrest the spread of infection – staying at home, unless we’re absolutely required to step outside, an inability to meet friends, or even go to school – things that we took to be a normal part of our lives, have certainly affected our mental health and wellbeing, not to mention the devastating impact it has had on those who’ve lost their loved ones to this deadly disease.

Surprisingly enough, the phrase also represents the opposite of what we must do at present: now is, after all, the time for togetherness, unity, and solidarity in the face of the unprecedented challenges we face.

In this issue, T Magazine speaks to mental health professionals in Oman to find out just how this disease is affecting us mentally, and how vital it is to support one another right now.

Those who’ve lost loved ones need support

Anuya Phule, clinical psychotherapist, Hatat Polyclinic

“COVID-19 has definitely had multiple effects on the psychological and mental effects of people. To start with, it has also had financial, social and medical impacts on them. Demographically speaking, we can categorise people affected by this pandemic, according to their age groups.

“Families who’d lost loved ones due to COVID-19, are going through their own trauma and grieving process, which is not the normal grieving process, and they definitely need all the support we can provide.”

In terms of how they’re being impacted, into what age groups can we classify people?

“Elders, who are used to socialising with people of their age in public places, are now utterly isolated, and this has caused in them a lot of restlessness and anxiety, as they have not experienced these things before.

“Then you have the middle-aged group, who are also the breadwinners of their family. They are experiencing challenges from every angle: financial insecurity, job insecurity, being the pillar of support for the family members, going out there to work, going out for grocery shopping, all the while keeping their family safe. I would say this is the group that has suffered the most. They have experienced sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, and changes in moods.”

“Children and teens have their own challenges at these times because they have been removed from their own normative ways: going to the playground, attending school, going out with friends, so initially, they experienced a lot of anxiety and had a lot of questions and curiosity. It is, however, up to the parents to describe things to them properly, at this time.”

What about those who already have underlying issues?

“Here is where the challenges really increase, because they are already going through problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorders, and health anxiety, to name a few. These are the people who would’ve found the current state really stressful, as they were unable to reach out to get help from their counsellors. Their fears were exacerbated during these times.”

All of us will cope in our own way

Dr Nuhaila Al Rawahi, educational psychologist

“Any change for most of us is something we don’t like. It is an uncomfortable type of feeling, but human nature means we are really good at adapting – some of us just take more time than others to do so. I think what has happened is that with the change, with a lot of us having to work from home, we have been forced to look at simple things and reprioritise what we do.

“I think being at home has also allowed people to revisit and redefine and even re-evaluate their purpose. Your work tasks may have changed because of the COVID situation, as well, so there are a lot of different aspects of that which have touched on people in different ways.”

Why do different people react differently to the impact of COVID-19?

“Because there are so many differences in all of us, we have taken to coping with staying at home in different ways. I for one have absolutely loved being at home…I have no desire to rush back, but I have colleagues who find being at home all the time very difficult.

“We vary in the way we understand the situation – some people’s fears and anxieties are elevated more than others. Others have a more pragmatic view, and then you have those who maybe don’t understand the magnitude of COVID and the risks, or are just rebellious in nature.”

How have people been coping with being confined to their homes, for the most part?

“There seems to be an influx of content on Instagram with all of these pictures of baking and drawing and so forth. Others have taken to other things. I have had a really good conversation with my sister about this…a lot of people feel they must do something very important during this period, but she says that it’s okay to just do nothing at this time. If you’re happy with that nothingness at home, and you’re okay just coasting through it, that’s fine.

“Your mental health must be at the forefront of everything: it is important for you to adjust and settle into your new routine. This is the most important thing right now. Not to forget, either, that times are changing: the COVID story and our adaptation to it is changing every day. As things change, how we adapt will also change.”

Learn how to be at peace

Massrat Shaikh, mindfulness expert

“Being at home, initially, might mean that you are confined with your family, but it also means that you are confined with yourself. I think it’s important to practice how to be at peace with one’s own mind, without driving yourself nuts.

“I have also been reflecting on what it means to stay home, and how to find some space within yourself, when the options of going out are limited. We need to look at it from the perspective that yes, home is a physical space, but it is also an emotional and mental space. Home is a space inside us that we create for ourselves, and if that is spacious enough, then I do not think we need to go outside and look for much else.”

How can children continue to learn social skills that are normally learned outside the home?

“Parents now need to take the initiative when it comes to teaching children social interaction, particularly if they have siblings. What is most important in the things they learn now is understanding and compassion. Character education is an important aspect over here, and I think now is the time to build up those core values.

“I think when we invest a little bit of time, as parents, in these areas, this will definitely help us when it comes to sharing and other values.”

Because we’re unable to meet other people, we are likely to lose touch with them. How do we ensure our relationships with others continue to remain strong?

“For many of us, COVID 19 has changed our relationships. This period has laid bare to us how strong our relationships are. Those relationships that were already weak went to become weaker and gave us a chance to see where we need to repair them, but those relationships that were strong went on to become stronger and did thrive with the time they got from being together.” – [email protected]